The present-day or modern Choctaw sweat lodge is associated with traditional Choctaw practices. Choctaw sweat lodges are places of prayer and healing for participants, and Choctaw medicine men have long used a sweat bath (hobichi) in their healing ceremonies. During sweat lodge ceremonies, participants sit in a circle inside a round, domed structure made of willow branches covered with blankets or tarps. In the center of the circle, lava rocks, called grandfather rocks, are stacked in a pit and a fire is built around them until they become red-hot. The conductor of the ceremony pours water on the rocks, creating steam that envelops the participants. Prayers and songs, including Choctaw sweat lodge songs, traditional Choctaw spiritual songs, and songs from other tribes, are offered during ceremonies.
Individuals who conduct sweat lodges run the ceremony differently based on their training and experience. Generally, the conductor encourages participants to be themselves and to pray from their hearts. In addition, the conductor typically divides the sweat lodge ceremony into four parts. The first round often is a cleansing or purification round, with participants encouraged to pray for themselves as the water is poured on the hot lava rocks. In the second round, participants are encouraged to pray for others. The third round is usually a healing round or an honor round. During the fourth round, participants usually give thanks to the Creator.
A number of practices precede a sweat lodge ceremony. The sweat lodge grounds need to be properly cleaned before a ceremony can take place. Cleaning includes sweeping out the interior of the sweat lodge and the surrounding area to remove the old prayers and pave the way for new prayers. The fire pit is also cleaned out and a new fire is made with the lava rocks stacked inside. As the fire burns and the rocks heat, the conductor of the sweat lodge or the fireman may watch or listen to the fire for signs of spiritual intervention. As people arrive for the ceremony, there is often a lot of joking. Sometimes, coffee or drinks may be available. Before entering, participants smudge the sweat lodge—generally with smoke from burning tobacco and cedar and sometimes with sage and sweetgrass. Cedar is a traditional Choctaw purifier, while tobacco is a traditional offering to the Creator. The smudge helps prepare the ceremonial space and the individuals for spiritual intercession.
Many participants consider the sweat lodge their place of spirituality. Participants do not have to dress up or attempt to impress others at sweat lodges. Rather, participants pray and seek spiritual assistance, knowledge, and understanding. Participants often attempt to leave their bad or destructive practices at the sweat lodge and emerge as new people focused on acting positively to build healthy relationships with their families and communities.
Sweat lodges are often located in people’s backyards. Sweat lodges may also be temporarily constructed at important cultural and spiritual sites, such as the top of Nanih Waiya, an earth mound of great cultural significance to the Choctaw.
- Tom Mould, Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy of the Future (2003)
- John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (1931)
- Stephen Rosecan, “Striving to Remake Their Lives: Spirituality, Social Relations, and Sweat Lodges among the Mississippi Choctaws,” Paper Presented at the Southern Anthropological Society Meeting (April 2002)